Pennsylvania voter-ID ruling imminent

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August 14, 2012

Pennsylvania

By Maresa Strano

HARRISBURG, PA: Back in March, Republican forces within the Pennsylvania Legislature in combination with Governor Tom Corbett passed a bill requiring voters to provide photo identification at the polls in order for their votes to be counted.[1] The law, known as Act 18, was enacted on the premise that voter-impersonation was eroding the integrity of Pennsylvania elections, and that an enhanced polling-place verification procedure would severely impede the incidence of voter fraud. The voter-ID bill was polarizing to begin with, impelling a rank-and-file reaction of hyper-partisanship. Then the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state and a video of Pennsylvania's Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai triumphantly equating the law's passage with GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney winning Pennsylvania in 2012 went viral, causing the two sides to double down on their positions.[2]

When the ACLU trial began on July 25th, so did a deluge of data supporting the popular notion from voter-ID critics that the new law represents "a solution in search of a problem."[3] This notion stems from the hitherto unattended nature of voter-impersonation cases by the state's election officials. Not a single case of in-personal voter fraud has been reported, let alone prosecuted, in Pennsylvania since 2000, according to a recent analysis of nationwide voter fraud by News21. Indeed, the organization's analysis of 2,068 cases found only 10 related to impersonation. leading the plaintiff's insinuation that the law was created for the purpose of suppressing the Democratic vote. The ACLU and a coalition of civil-rights organizations sued the state, represented in court by the attorney general, for passing a law they claim disenfranchises minority voters, a disproportionate share of whom vote Democratic.

Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act protects minorities from voter disenfranchisement and is pegged to parallel voter-ID battles waging this election cycle in states such as Texas and South Carolina. Because Texas has a history of discriminatory election conduct, the state requires preliminary federal government clearance of any statewide election legislation. When Texas passed its voter-ID law, the U.S. Justice Department sued for the state for violating the Voting Right Act. Seeking to avoid a legal quagmire a la Texas vs. DOJ, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office preemptively sued the DOJ for the right to implement the new law. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele released a statement on the eve of the trial saying that the DOJ was running a contemporaneous investigation into the law's alleged violation of the Voting Rights Act, based on figures provided by the Pennsylvania’s Department of State and the Department of Transportation; according to the departments' reports, "as many as 758,000 people, about 9 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters currently don’t have the identification that now will be required at the polling place." The DOJ could reject the law for being unconstitutional, or Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson could grant the ACLU and its co-plaintiffs their request for an injunction to temporarily block the law. Both both verdicts are expected before the end of the month, with the latter likely to arrive as early as this week.[4]

Whether or not the law takes effect this November, the hearings in Pennsylvania, which concluded on August 13, added context and dimension to a stubbornly dichotomous voter-ID narrative prone to oversimplification. The data gathered from all 50 states' elections officials over the last few weeks to assess the rate and quality of cases of alleged fraudulence brought significant attention to the "infinitesimal" proof of in-person voter fraud. But the investigation also yielded another figure that stands out, from a practical, less politically fraught, vantage point: In the last dozen years, the majority of voter fraud cases came from mail-in ballots and voter registration.[4] As the 2012 general election and the scheduled implementation date looms closer, new voter-ID requirements in seven states, including Pennsylvania, are being held up by the DOJ or other legal challenges.[5] If any or all of the laws are struck down per their current construction, subsequent attempts to address threats to the integrity of elections may focus on how to apply the knowledge about registration and absentee voting as the primary culprits.[6] Minimizing the human error and/or systematic weaknesses that lead to fraud, or the appearance of fraud, could be achieved without stirring references to "poll taxes" and the Democrats could stop pretending that carrying photo-ID is so unusual.

Update

August 16, 2012

Pennsylvania

By Maresa Strano

HARRISBURG, PA: On Wednesday afternoon, August 15, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled in favor of allowing Pennsylvania to proceed on schedule with the implementation of its controversial new voter photo-ID requirement.[7]. Arriving roughly three weeks after the trial hearings commenced, Simpson's decision not to grant the plaintiffs' request to block the law via an injunction concluded the first of a likely series of efforts to prevent the measure from taking effect this November. The coalition of individual activists and civil rights organizations (including the American Civil Liberties Union) behind the lawsuit allege the law has a political bent and will result in the disenfranchisement of minorities, students, and other predominantly Democratic voting demographics.

With only a few months before the general election, the ACLU and other voter-ID opponents from the case are expected to file an appeal as quickly as possible to the state Supreme Court. It would take a two-thirds majority vote in the Supreme Court to overturn the Republican judge's recent ruling. According to a report published by the Associated Press, the six sitting justices (with one justice out on suspension pending possible corruption charges) are split evenly, three Democrats and three Republicans.[7] Under this composition, it will be highly difficult to secure four out of six votes necessary to overturn.

"We're not done, it's not over," said Witold J. Walczak, an ACLU lawyer who helped argue the case for the plaintiffs. It's why they make appeals courts."[8]

One of the chief complaints from voter-ID critics is that the newly required IDs claim to be free, courtesy of the Pennsylvania government, while in reality they can be costly to obtain unless you already have several forms of proof of citizenship, for example a birth certificate and social security card. In a July 20 press release from the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, secretary Carol Aichele sought to allay these concerns with the announcement that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation would issue special - polling-place accepted - ID cards as an alternative for registered voters who are not able to provide all of the documents they would typically have to present to get a photo ID from PennDOT. “We believe these new cards will be a safety net for those who may not currently possess all of the documents they need for a standard photo ID from PennDOT. Our goals are to continue making voters aware of the new voter ID law and helping those who may not have proper identification obtain it,” she added.[9]

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References

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